With the proliferation of mobile electronic technologies, interactive displays have begun to appear more frequently in fixed contexts such as smart rooms and media-driven building facades. The latest focus of smart surface research is on the most connective element of the constructed environment: the road.
At the recent Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, Studio Roosegaarde announced a joint effort with Heijmans Infrastructure to create the Smart Highway. This proposal for an electronically-enhanced road system fuses disparate elements of existing road infrastructure. Lighting, signage, and the roadbed are now a singular, integrated system. In addition, the Smart Highway manages energy in innovative ways with an "Induction Priority Lane" that charges electric cars while moving, and photo-luminescent paint that illuminates the road profile without added electricity. "Dynamic paint" also alerts to users to environmental hazards, such as the undetectable presence of black ice.
The Digital Interactive Roadway designed by BIG for the Audi Urban Future exhibition in 2011 proposes a similar roadbed enhancement. The surface of the DIR incorporates strips of LED lights and a distributed network of sensors that respond directly to changing automotive and pedestrian traffic. "If I imagine a city in 25 years’ time, the vertical facades appear unchanged, but the roadway has become a digitally programmable surface," said Bjarke Ingels in a press release for the exhibition. "Fixed elements such as carriageways, sidewalks or city squares no longer exist. The digital surfaces can be adapted to all road users and in this way control the traffic. On one single day, the street can change many times: from pedestrian area to highway, from city square to meadow."
Although the Smart Highway and Digital Interactive Roadway present provocative ideas about future transportation infrastructure, they will doubtless cost much more than conventional roadbeds, even considering the energy savings of reduced highway lighting. In a time of decaying infrastructure and reduced spending on highway construction, these ideas are not likely to generate much traction. However, if accompanied by equally sophisticated material innovations like smart concrete or self-healing pavement technologies that dramatically reduce the required maintenance on roads, these ideas could be proposed for surgical implementation in the most heavily-used roadways as a means to increase the longevity of pavement while also increasing its functional capabilities.
Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.